The Sunil we all wanted to see has finally made a comeback on screen, albeit on OTT, as prime antagonist in the recently released Telugu film Colour Photo (Aha). He doesn't play a comic villain or somebody else's henchman in the film. He calls the shots even though he appears for just about half an hour.
It has taken Sunil nearly two decades to move from being a sidekick to kicking the hero. It's another matter that he failed when he attempted to headline action comedies. Sunil, if you look at his body of work, is a bonafide star who is yet to get his due in Telugu cinema.
Sunil has starred in around 200 films so far. And, going by sheer math, you can argue that he's experimented widely with his characters. In the early 2000s, when he was a fresh face, Brahmanandam and MS Narayana were already fixtures in Telugu films. Sunil's age — he was in his 20s then — permitted him to play the hero's best friend. He was usually cast as the guy who'd lend his shoulder to the male lead during difficult times, or as the target of hilarious pranks.
When it came to the films of older stars such as Chiranjeevi, Venkatesh and Nagarjuna, he found another platform to shine — he dropped his college-boy avatar to play a housekeeper, or a family member. His early successes were goldmines. With Nuvvu Nenu, Nuvvu Naaku Nachav, Sontham, Nuvve Nuvve, Manasantha Nuvve and Manmadhudu, he also became a fixture. But, he still had to work within the constraints of commercial Telugu cinema.
As Sunil's popularity grew, he was offered bigger parts, and that's how Andala Ramudu (2006), the film where he starred as lead, became a box office hit. But that was a remake of the Tamil Sundara Purushan (1996) and a one-off wonder, so he continued to wear the cape of a comedian.
In 2010, however, SS Rajamouli gave the actor a complete makeover in Maryada Ramanna, which ran to packed houses for several weeks. Rajamouli had just then delivered the industry's biggest blockbuster Magadheera the previous year, and was willing to gamble with his image and a lead actor, who was ready to sing, dance, fight, cry and be goofy.
Perhaps, the general curiosity regarding this new director-actor collaboration piqued the audiences' curiosity and drove them to the theatres. The magic worked, but Sunil was left hanging on the bridge. He couldn't just go back to his regular den and get beaten up by other stars in the name of comedy, nor could he reuse his bag of tricks.
Ram Gopal Varma, who has always idolised Rajamouli, thought he could depend upon Sunil's talent for a low-budget comedy drama and immediately churned out the terrible Katha Screenplay Darsakatvam Appalaraju (2011). And then, he went a step further and made the ensemble mess Dongala Mutha (2011), in which Sunil starred alongside Ravi Teja, Charmme, Lakshmi Manchu, Bramhanandam, Subbaraju, Brahmaji and Prakash Raj.
At the turn of the decade, when Sunil took a turn to fill bigger shoes, he lost his footing. He then starred in a string of comedies that leaned on romance, action, and whatnot, but most bit the dust. Though the guy playing the lead was the same, the directors were different. They did not possess Rajamouli's knack and did not know how to capitalise on Sunil's strengths. From 10 to 20 releases a year, Sunil's work dwindled to just a couple of movies a year. Even his six-pack abs didn't help him win over new audiences. A star once loved by a generation of fans stood the risk of being forgotten.
Sunil may not have flipped a coin à la Rajinikanth in Sivaji (2007) to change tracks. But, his decision to return to his forte must be appreciated. Change is inevitable, and stars who understand that phenomenon go on to leave larger footprints in the sands of time. Think Amitabh Bachchan.
Sunil turned into a supporting actor, and that's what we witnessed in Aravinda Sametha Veera Raghava (2018). And now, with Colour Photo, he has channeled his inner demon to play the mean, beastly Rama Raju, a character that complements Shammi (Fahadh Faasil) from Kumbalangi Nights (2019). Shammi and Rama Raju seem like two peas in a pod. They are both egotistical, worry a lot about their own appearances, and quickly judge others based on their skin colour, education, and the jobs they do to earn a living.
Earlier this year, Sunil matched steps with Allu Arjun in Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo and, now, he's warning young women to listen to their parents and not fall in love with the men they like in Colour Photo.
And, yet, there's a feeling he's under-utilised in mainstream cinema. There are certainly other facets of his that filmmakers are yet to discover. Let's see what the coming years show us.